Listeria causes health crisis in South Africa

Said to be the worst outbreak of the foodborne disease in history, listeriosis has been confirmed as the cause of well over 700 cases among the South African population, and more than 80 deaths, over the last year.

rusak, Bigstock
rusak, Bigstock

Said to be the worst outbreak of the foodborne disease in history, listeriosis has been confirmed as the cause of well over 700 cases among the South African population, and more than 80 deaths, over the last year.

The number of laboratory-confirmed cases of listeriosis in the country since January 1, 2017, now stands at 767, according to the latest update earlier this week from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NIDC). The disease is also known to have accounted for 81 deaths.

Listeriosis is a serious, but preventable and treatable disease caused by the bacterium, Listeria monocytogenes, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). These bacteria are widely distributed in nature, and may be found in unpasteurized dairy products and ready-to-eat foods, and can grow at refrigeration temperatures. Listeria infection may lead to unplanned abortions in pregnant women or death of newborn babies. Although disease occurrence is relatively low, Listeria’s severe and sometimes fatal health consequences, particularly among infants, children and the elderly, count them among the most serious foodborne infections.

NIDC data confirms the vulnerability of babies under one month of age, who account for 41 percent of the confirmed cases in South Africa, which cover an age range from birth to 93 years. Geographical analysis shows that most cases have been reported in Gauteng Province (60 percent), followed by Western Cape (13 percent) and KwaZulu Natal (7 percent). Because of delays over the holiday period and the complexity of analysis, NIDC warns that it has complete data on only around one-fifth of the confirmed cases.

Source of infection still uncertain

Food safety expert, Dr. Lucia Anelich, told Times Live that the source of infection has so far eluded identification. It is most likely a product that is eaten across the country, and often, and that the contamination may be deli meats.

Whole genome sequencing links most of the listeria cases to a single source, possibly a particular food or range of foods, according to Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi, Minister of Health in the South African government. He told a recent press conference that although nine different strains of Listeria had been identified in samples related to the current outbreak, more than 90 percent were sequence type 6 (ST6).

No food or environmental samples have been found contaminated with ST6 to date, he said.

The Minister said that Listeria monocytogenes was detected in a sample of chicken taken from one patient’s home in December. The meat was traced back to a Sovereign Foods’ slaughterhouse, but subsequent testing at the facility failed to detect any trace of the outbreak strain, ST6.

“We cannot conclude that the abattoir called Sovereign Foods is the source of the present outbreak,” he said.

Last week, Times Live reported that Sovereign Foods had reopened its poultry plant at Haartbeespoort in Gauteng Province following the investigation.

Stressing that there is no evidence to suggest the facility is responsible for the spike in listeriosis-related deaths in the area, its production head, Blaine van Rensburg said the firm is tightening up its health standards. Sovereign Foods has announced it will introduce five more carcass-washing points in addition to the standard locations following defeathering and in the evisceration line.

In order to bring the Listeria outbreak in the country under control, the South African government made the disease notifiable in December 2017, obliging health professionals and the food supply chain to provide full disclosure on possible cases and sources.

In recent months, pork and chicken companies in the U.S. and Canada have recalled products due to Listeria contamination.

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